Is a military solution the only option left in Libya?

Both internal and external actors have undermined UN efforts to keep the political process in Libya alive.

Libya conflict
Fighters loyal to Libya's UN-recognised government (GNA) fire guns during clashes with forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar on the outskirts of Tripoli on May 25 [Reuters/Goran Tomasevic]

War has been raging on in Libya for more than two months. What was supposed to be a quick operation for renegade general Khalifa Haftar’s forces to take over the Libyan capital Tripoli has now turned into a battle of attrition.

Over 600 people have been killed, more than 3,000 injured and some 90,000 displaced from their homes. Thousands of residential buildings have been damaged or destroyed due to the indiscriminate shelling. Nearly three million people remain besieged in the capital, forced to spend the holy month of Ramadan in fear and shortages of basic goods.

So far there has been no clear winner. Factions aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA) have managed to stop the advance of Haftar‘s forces and killed his hopes for a quick victory in Tripoli.

The United Nations has issued a number of statements calling on the two sides to halt hostilities, but they have all fallen on deaf ears. Neither the GNA, nor Haftar are willing to back down or agree to a ceasefire. The UN Security Council has also been unable to reach consensus on any resolution that would end the fighting and restart the negations process.

This is because the international community remains divided on Libya, with regional and world powers backing each of the two sides and further fuelling the conflict.

Is a political solution still possible?

Over the past four years, the UN has put a lot of effort in trying to bring the ongoing civil war in Libya to a peaceful resolution. Even as Haftar moved his forces towards Tripoli, UN representatives still insisted that a political solution must be pursued.

Haftar’s forces launched their offensive just days before the National Conference was scheduled to be held the Libyan city of Ghadames.

As a result of the attack, the conference, which had been in the making for months, was cancelled and the UN mediation efforts severely undermined. Now two months later, it seems quite clear that the peace process the UN had worked so hard to kick-start is dead.

Meanwhile, positions on both sides of the war have hardened significantly. Fayez Serraj, head of the GNA, has gone as far as saying that he had been stabbed in the back and that it was a mistake to have trusted Haftar’s intentions in all the meetings he had with him previously. He now insists that the renegade general can no longer be a partner in any peace talks.

Haftar, on the other hand, is also adamant in his stance and says that he is not ready to commit to any ceasefire or political process, whether backed by the UN or any other political actor. He seems bound on continuing his assault on Tripoli. “Of course, the political solution is still the goal. But to get back to politics, we must first finish with militias,” he told a French newspaper late last month.

By now, it appears that a political solution to the conflict is very much unlikely. The only way the fighting can come to an end is if one of the sides achieves a conclusive military victory.

What does a military solution mean?

It is not only the two sides to the conflict which seem to be betting on a military solution. Various regional and international players are intervening in Libya with the hope of securing a victory for the side they favour.

Fresh deliveries of advanced weapons and ammunition have been made to both camps, which in effect is only prolonging the war. Despite the fact that the supply of arms is in clear violation of the UN arms embargo, there has been little public condemnation of these actions.

There are two possible outcomes of the ongoing war: Either Haftar would eventually succeed in taking over Tripoli and removing the GNA from power or the GNA would be able to push his forces out of the capital and launch a counteroffensive.

In the first case, Libya would be doomed to a one-man military rule. If Haftar takes the capital, he would effectively have control over Libya’s three most important strategic assets: the political centre of the country, its key institutions, and most of its oil. These would help him solidify his grip on power and impose a Gaddafi-style regime backed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

In the second case, the country would still have a chance to pursue a political solution. If the forces loyal to the GNA manage to overrun Haftar’s positions in the west and south, this would significantly weaken him, both politically and militarily. A defeat would most likely mean his exclusion from any future political dialogue. Given that he has been one of the biggest obstacles to achieving permanent peace and stability in Libya, his elimination as a political factor would bode well for the future of the country. 

The problem with “waiting” for a military solution to the conflict in Libya is that it will cost the country and its civilian population dearly. As UN special envoy Ghassan Salame pointed out recently, the fighting around Tripoli is “just the start of a long and bloody war“.

The death and suffering of Libyan civilians is very much preventable, if only the international community would find the political will to act.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.